Tuesday, May 27, 2008

DEATH IN HOLY ORDERS, by P.D. James


I was working on this book for a few weeks. It's another detective novel, but different in a few important ways from some of the others I've written about here. While many of the other detective books I've mentioned have a very direct, action-oriented approach, this book goes heavy on thought processes and backstory. The thought-to-action ratio swings dramatically around page 350; it seems almost like James knows she has to wrap things up, and therefore focuses in on the facts. The chapters themselves are short, 3-7 pages usually, but there are a lot of them. Narration is third person, with a scope of knowledge limited to one character at a time and remaining loyal to that character throughout the course of the chapter.

All in all, it was a decent book. The main character, detective Dalgliesh, wasn't especially interesting for me, but I appreciated the setting (an isolated Anglican theological college on England's east coast), and found the British-ness of it refreshing.

What I feel most compelled to talk about now, though, is the "easing-in" period I have with so many books. DEATH IN HOLY ORDERS works as a good example. I read a chapter here and there, put the book down and let it lie for a few days, then picked it again and read another few chapters. For the first week or so, my relationship with the book was pretty casual; the prose didn't capture my attention, it didn't pull me in and draw me along with the plot; I wasn't compelled to spend a lot of time with it. But as I got farther in, say around 80 pages, I began to feel more comfortable with the author's way with words, more interested in the character's themselves. I'd developed a familiarity with the setting and story, a curiosity regarding the unfolding of events. It took a while, but my affection for the book grew. Finally, coinciding with the book's plunge into a more action-oriented approach near the end, I gorged myself on the story, finishing the last 100 pages in one sitting, laying on the couch and reading without cease until my eyes blurred, reluctant to stop even for a quick trip to the bathroom. At this point, my mind preferred the reality held within the pages of the book to the reality of the actual world all around me.

A lot of books are like this for me. They require repeated administrations before their addictive qualities take hold.

I wonder if it's like that for other people.

(The other common experience I have with books is a more immediate connection. I pick them up and tear through them in great chunks, finish them off in just three of four sessions of reading. I'm reading a Sci Fi novel right now that falls in with this group.)

Another thing I wanted to draw attention to is the level of commitment that reading a book like this takes, and how that compares to the commitment required for other entertainment pursuits. DEATH IN HOLY ORDERS is more than 144,000 words long, which is on the long side for a pulp novel (another detective book I wrote about on this blog, TERROR TOWN, is just shy of 59,000 words). If the average reader can get through 200 words a minute, this book demands about 12 solid hours of reading time. If you read for an hour a day, it'll take nearly two weeks to finish. That's an ongoing commitment, merely for the sake of entertainment. I feel like people are becoming less likely to make that sort of commitment today. We're distracted enough, and the pace of our lives is fast enough, that even a two hour movie can seem daunting. To focus our attentions on one story for two weeks--and to do it just for the sake of fun--it's hard for me to imagine that people will continue to be willing to do this. Modern society is moving us away from the patience, thoughtfulness, and mental endurance required for the enjoyment of novels.